The Impact of Focusing on Literacy
“If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.” - Confucius
I refer to this adage again as it speaks volumes about our work in education. We have committed to serving our students by providing them with the most robust and effective education that prepares them for the challenges of the real world. The reality is that it has left many schools chasing too many rabbits, hoping not to miss an opportunity for growth and innovation. But with only 35% of students reading proficiently nationally (measured by the NAEP reading assessment), one of the rabbits that has escaped many schools is perhaps the most important, as it is the gateway to all other learning. It’s time to focus on literacy.
We must do better than just adding literacy to the list of implementations and initiatives. Making it “one of the priorities” (a statement riddled with irony) will continue as a disservice to our teachers and students. Educators deserve an opportunity to focus on one area to truly grow their craft, reflect on their progress, and feel confident in their growth. As teacher efficacy has one of the most significant effect sizes on student learning, it only makes sense to foster that in literacy and truly impact student achievement.
There is plenty of evidence to show that focus makes an impact. I’ll start with my own. It was my fifth year of teaching, and although our school was high-performing, there was room for improvement. About 80% of our students were reading at grade level, but our principal set the goal of raising that to 95%. After the shock and awe wore off, this became the focus of our work throughout the school year. Every teacher could speak to this goal, and everybody was invested. At the end of the year, we reviewed our school data at a staff meeting. We exceeded our mark, and 97% of our students were reading on grade level. I genuinely believe this success would not have been achieved had we also implemented a new math program and started a new evaluation system while learning a new behavior protocol.
Without question, it is challenging for educational leaders to avoid unnecessary systems and practices to allow for more time and bandwidth for the work that matters. School improvement plans have become pages long with several “foci” (again, ironic), countless measures, numerous stakeholders, and endless steps to take to reach these goals. Only to be approved by the superintendent, posted on the website, and never to be looked at again until months later when you have to scramble for some relevant data to report on progress. Imagine a world where your school improvement goal is as follows: X% of students will be reading at grade level by the end of the year. Period. And your plan to meet that goal is to spend time learning about literacy at every grade level meeting, PLC, professional development, staff meeting, etc., etc., etc. to grow teacher and leader efficacy. It can happen. I’ve lived it. And there is a litany of evidence from other schools, districts, and states (great work, Mississippi!) who have given themselves permission to cut through the noise and focus. As a result, more students are reading proficiently.
It can be unsettling to “backburner” some hot topics such as SEL, math, and technology for this work. But consider the associated effects of students learning to read. There will be a positive impact beyond literacy that will improve your school community.
Countless evidence demonstrate a strong correlation between higher levels of proficient readers in a school and lower numbers of behavior incidents. It makes sense to draw a straight line from learning to read to higher learner self-efficacy to fewer disruptive behaviors. Behavior is a form of communication, and as literate students have developed several alternate forms of communication, they are less likely to lean on attention-seeking outbursts to be heard.
We also know that students must first learn to read to transition to reading to learn. Once they have achieved reading proficiency and can fluently use text to access new information, student performance in other content areas will also show improvement. They will read and understand word problems in math, have the bandwidth to think critically about social studies text and build up the background knowledge to explain a phenomenon in science.
There has been much discussion lately about how to teach reading. But as we are solidifying what the research, science, and evidence clearly says about how children learn to read, we must also consider the research around implementation. It all supports focusing on a goal, monitoring and reflecting on progress, and making adjustments to your work based on your ongoing analysis of progress. Consider these closing words as your elevator pitch to stakeholders who challenge your courage to focus. Literacy is the key to all other learning. It is self-efficacy, it is career readiness, it is an informed citizen, it is access, it is equity. If we want to impact our students' literacy proficiency, then we must support the educators who teach them. They deserve to focus their time and bandwidth on what matters, and what matters is effectively teaching our students to read.
Roberts, G. J., Vaughn, S., Roberts, G., & Miciak, J. (2021). Problem Behaviors and Response to Reading Intervention for Upper Elementary Students With Reading Difficulties. Remedial and special education : RASE, 42(3), 169. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932519865263